Roy, The Mountain Man, is not the first person I encountered who lives at the seam in society where people we understand intersect with people we know little about.
The year was 2003; the place, a truck stop in Fort Meyers, Florida. I was nearing the end of a cross-country drive that began in the San Francisco Bay Area three days before.
It was the fifth time I’d made such a trip in five years. My highway style was to highball across the Interstates stopping to catnap at rest stops and truck stops, watching the scenery change in slow motion and listening to audiobooks. When I wanted a respite from the sound of a book, I’d turn to NPR until it was driven from the air by country western music. When the twang of the singer became indistinguishable from the twang of the guitar, I’d try another book.
Coffee, hot food, and rest rooms are available 24-7 at truck stops. A great one will have a driver’s lounge with a free internet connection, hot showers at $7 per, and if you look like a driver, no one will bother you if you are there for hours. With a three-day beard, several coffee stains on my shirt, and bits of chocolate and food condiments on my lap, I scored high on the seediness scale. I’d never been questioned.
Besides drivers, truck stops are peopled by drifters and grifters, hooligans and hos.
I paid little mind to Mark when he mooshed into the adjacent booth. His movements were loose and liquid as he freed himself of his bed roll and modest black canvas shoulder bag. I took in his several-day beard and foot -long pony tail.
“How’s it goin’, driver?” he asked.
“Not a driver,” I said. “Just passin’ through.”
“Oh, I thought you were. I am just a tramp.”
“A tramp, eh?”
“Yes, I have been a tramp since 1974. You know a tramp is just someone who is on the road. It isn’t a bad word and it doesn’t describe bad people.”
“Hmmm” I said. My hand came up and my thumb and forefinger encircled my chin stroking the goatee that had never been there except for a couple of months as a college sophomore.
“Check Webster’s” he went on, “it just means foot traveler. Like hobo only a hobo is someone who travels by train.” He warmed to his topic and went on. “Hobo is believed to come from what was a generic greeting; like ‘hi, beau’. ” He smiled at me and showed me teeth that were gathered in two or three clumps.
“I am a tramp in the old meaning of the word. I work — some, when I can get it. . Tramps have self-respect. I just like living on the road. I don’t take welfare and I don’t beg although I do panhandle. Panhandling gives ‘you’ a choice; you can say no, which by the way you can’t if it is welfare. You paid your money and some ‘politician’ decides to give it to someone on welfare. I can work.
He put down welfare like a ham-fisted right wing politician, an odd perspective out of the chimney flue of a likeable tramp.
“It is a chosen lifestyle. I adhere to the Code of the Road and Vagabond Etiquette. I am not into material things, or making an impression or looking good.”
I let about a half inch of nod escape and it was all he needed to continue.
“There have always been vagabonds but their numbers got a big push after the civil war when a lot of confederate veterans had nothing and nothing to go back to. When Reagan was governor of California, he closed the mental institutions and swelled the population of people on the street. He said it was because most people were there against their will and should have a choice. But I think he just wanted to save the money.”